The O’Brien Family 
1. Copy of transcript of preparatory papers for O’Brien family reunion, held Sherwood Forest Park, Brisbane, 1979/80. Author unknown. 

Charles, William and James O’Brien from Port-O-Down, Armagh, Ireland to Brisbane, Queensland 1863.

“I have left my family charisma”

This declaration made by a grandson of the original Charles O’Brien of Moggill seems to sum up the main legacy the pioneer O’Brien brothers managed to leave to their descendants. Whatever else they were, they certainly were not ordinary! Perhaps it was the O’Brien claim – ‘You’re descended from the Kings of Ireland’ that gave them that extra something to hand on, for indeed they could not have had much of anything else when one considers the persecution in Ireland, especially in the north, at the time of their emigration. Because of the situation still present in Northern Ireland, it is almost impossible to get an information before their departure from Belfast in 1863. Whilst Stormont and Port-o-down are reported as their place of origin and they were all farmers, it is purported that the family had livery stables in Belfast.

As far as can be ascertained, there were seven children from the marriage of Charles O’Brien with Mary McIllenden, in approximately 1805 in Armagh. Their first child Mary was born in 1806, Charles in 1809, William in Port-o-down in 1821, and James in Lurgan, Armagh in 1822. The three brothers who emigrated to America at this same time probably came in between Charles and his younger brothers.

In January, 1863, the “Queen of the Colonies” sailed from London carrying 385 passengers. The ship was a 1246 Ton windjammer, and took 140 days to reach Brisbane. On board were the three O’Brien brothers and their wives and children, some furniture, fine pewter and even livestock. Considering their ages it must have been a worrying venture, but to remain in Ireland under conditions there would certainly have been worse. Other relatives also sailed for Brisbane at this time, and it is hoped that their names will come to light. The parents of the O’Donohue family would probably be among these but so far no positive details have been gathered on them.

Emigration must have been imperative to the older members of the families, as they had lived through the years when it was illegal for a Catholic Irishman to own land as freehold; was not permitted to vote; not allowed to hold public office; not allowed to work in the civil service; not allowed to own a weapon, not allowed to own a horse over the value of five pounds; not allowed to be educated in or out of Ireland; could not earn more than one-third the value of his farm crops; not allowed to practice as a lawyer, doctor, trader or professional of any kind; their religion was largely forbidden with no facility to train new priests and foreign educated priests were outlawed. All Catholics were compelled to pay tithes to the Anglican Church. This brought on secret Masses, and Priests returning from the continent were hunted down, hanged, drawn and quartered. The only chance of some learning was in the hedge school where wandering priests and teachers would conduct schools illegally. Is it any wonder if they possessed a fierceness in their religion?

Added to this persecution, the terrible potato famine arrived in 1845 and over a million people died in Ireland, many of whom had been evicted from their homes and died on the roadsides. A sailing ship to Australia would certainly be a pleasure compared to the fate of some people in Ireland – especially in the North – during these times.

On board the ship to Australia were Charles – 54 years old, and his wife Catherine – 35 years old and their children:
Francis 11, Charles 8, John 6, Edward 4, Mary 2, Catherine – born on the voyage.

William the middle brother was 42 years of age, his wife Catherine was 39 years of age, and their children on board were –
Charles 10, Catherine 8, William John 6, Mary 5 years.

James the youngest brother must have been 41 years of age, his wife Sarah was 21 years of age, and their only child Lucy aged 2 years was with them.

The ages and dates on records often do not tally exactly, but they would be approximate, and it is interesting to note that Charles married Catherine Neus, daughter of Edward Neus and his wife Mary (Gracey) in 1841 in Armagh at the aged of 32 years, which means his wife was very young, and this probably accounts for the large family of fifteen children. However, their first living child, Francis (who later died), was born in 1852 after eleven years of marriage. This is probably the period when the other three male deaths occurred, and also the period of the potato famine – 1845.

William, born in Port-o-down in 1821 and Catherine, daughter of William Hannon and his wife Catherine (Wilson) were married at Loch Gall, Armagh, in approximately 1848 age 27 years and 23 years respectively, and their first living child Charles (Black Charlie) was born in 1853, five years later. There was a male infant death probably during that time. Five more children were born, making eight in all. Their younger daughter Mary was killed in 1882 at Fig Tree Pocket at the age of 20 years – gored by a Jersey Bull.

James the younger brother was born in Lurgan, Armagh (his death certificate says 1832), and as all have heard that he died at over 100 years he would have been born in 1822. He married Sarah Ann Marsden, daughter of William Marsden and his wife Ann (McConville) in about 1860 when she was 18 years of age and he must have been then 38 years. There were 11 children born to James and “Sally”, one of whom died at the age of 17 years – Artie – Arthur Matthew Berry O’Brien – in 1905 after a tonsils operation.

Charles, William and James had an older sister, Mary, who was 57 years of age at the time of their emigation. She had married John Breen in Armagh, and after being widowed, was probably brought out on a later ship. There is no record of Mary Breen having any children and she lived with James and his family at Highlands, Fig Tree Pocket, until she died in 1905 at the age of 99 years. One of the older members of the clan claims that Mary Breen could read and write without glasses until she died.

The three brothers have family graves in the Toowong Cemetery where most of the early pioneers are buried. Charles and William have tombstones engraved with family names, but James’ family grave seems to have lost the headstone.

Pioneers of the Fig Tree Pocket and Moggill areas all arrived in the early 60’s in the emigrant windjammers such as the Queen of the Colonies, Fiery Star, Light of the Age, and Erin-go-bragh, and these names held warm places in old memories. The long voyages cemented lasting friendships among the emigrants. On arrival in Brisbane, few roads penetrated the wilderness, the river being the general means of commerce and communication with the small township of Brisbane and Ipswich.

There seems to be various versions of what happened after landing in Brisbane in 1863.

One report of sailing up the river as far as St Lucia and going by horse and cart to Fig Tree Pocket and Moggill respectively sounds fascinating and sensible. Since the 1840s settlers had moved up the river and worked land on either bank. Timber was floated downstream in rafts made of logs. The banks of the Brisbane River were cloathed with a dense growth of scrub and by means of fallen foliage and decaying timber the woil in these scrubs was wonderfully rich, but before the agriculturalist appeared on the scene the only occupation was timber getting, as the scrub had a fine supply of pine timber. When the tide of emigration flowed into Queensland, these rich lands which had been surveyed and subdivided for the use of the immigrants were soon taken up, as preference was given to the land close to the town of Brisbane. From 1860 these lands totalling 30 or 40 acres were sold at an upset price of 1 dollar per acre payable in cash or by land order. At auction they brought two dollars per acre.

The pioneering families worked hard building their slab cabins and clearing the scrub to plant their crops. Huge carpet snakes were encountered and the primitive scrub was rich in animal life. The black tribes of the district were said to have been superb specimens of physique. The small farms produced a variety of crops, maize, potatoes, pumpkins, and other vegetables, and later on sugarcane, cotton, arrowroot, lucerne and oats to which might be added butter and eggs. All the farm produce was carried by boat to Ipswich and Brisbane. The boats used by farmers were a flat bottomed punt type rowed by hand oars, but sufficiently large to carry quantities of produce. To make the task of rowing a loaded boat from Fig Tree Pocket to Brisbane as quick and as easy as possible, the journey was always undertaken with the advantage of the tide. When sugar cane was planted, nearly all the river bank from 17 Mile Rocks to Brisbane was planted. There were four sugar mills all within reasonable distance of the farmers. Cane was sent to the mills by punts or drays. There was a travelling sugar mill on the river fitted up on a boat which moved from farm to farm. The productivity of the rich virgin soil made up for lack of acreage, and life along the river in the 1860s with its close settlement of small farms was happy because of the great bond of friendship and willingness to share in hardships and enjoyments that characterised the settlers.

People went to town by crossing the river to Sherwood from Fig Tree Pocket, and taking at first a Cobb & Co Coach, and then later a train.

The passing of the Selection Act of 1868 by the Queensland Parliament opened up proclaimed Crown Land for selection. Under this act first class agricultural land was available for purchase at fifteen shillings per acre. Second class and timbered land could be purchased at five shillings per acre.

In the Pullenvale area James Boyle took up the first parcel of land, Portion 187, on September 25th, 1868, and Charles O’Brien followed with the adjoining property on November 12th, 1868. Selectors under the 1868 law were required to erect and maintain boundary marks, but most important for the development of the area they were required to live on their land. An example of the early buildings of the period is recorded in a painting by GGS Hirst of Charles O’Brien’s home in 1875. The painting carried the caption “Stormont – the farmstead and property of Mr Charles O’Brien and Family at Moggill – 13 mile from Brisbane”. In the short peiod of only 6 years after taking up the selection, the property was able to boast a comfortable slab and shingle cottage with expansive verandahs built on to a courtyard surrounded by an immense barn and farmhands accomodation, stables, dairy, piggery and a horse powered mill.

Here Charles and Catherine O’Brien reared their family of 11 children with four male deaths making their family 15 in all. No doubt many of the younger children attended the Pullenvale school, but unfortunately records of the school between 1874 – 1902 cannot be found. Neither can they be found for the Moggill school, and no doubt its early history is linked with the original settlers.

Prior to 1875 education was no compulsory in Queensland. Most children gained what little education they could from their parents, but so keen were people to have schools in their areas that by 1874 Pullenvale school was established and the names of 6 O’Brien children were on the list. However, the attendance of all the school children was always spasmodic. Such poor attendance at school probably prompted the passing of a law which made education compulsory in 1875.

Naturally the O’Brien boys grew to become great horsemen as their life would be wholly around horses and cattle and indeed the horse was their only means of transport. Everyone seems to have heard of the eight bearded O’Brien sons on eight black horses riding before their father’s hearse drawn by two horses adorned with plumes and draped with a tassled black cloth, all the way from Stormont, Moggill to the Toowong Cemetery! Though Charles is reported to have been a hard man who probably worked his children as though they were men he must have gained their respect and reverence to have them honour his wish that they ride in his funeral procession in such a way, in June 1905.

The Pullenvale area was famous with the aborigines as a place of recouperation. Legend has it that ailing tribesmen retired to the Pullenvale hills where they regained good health. As Charles lived to be 96 years of age and his wife might have lived as long but for her accidental death, the aborigines were probably right.

Catherine O’Brien died accidently in 1902 at the aged of 73 years by burning. The elderly couple were living in a small cottage above the original homestead and where the small Moggill Catholic Church now stands, named St Catherines, in her memory.

An account of the accident is given by Julia O’Driscoll, a grand-daughter aged 10 years at the time who gave evidence as follows:-
“When Uncle Willie got married he had the old home for a while, then he built a new house beside the old home and Uncle Charlie and Uncle Ned built a little cottage with a small verandah in front and low on the ground for Grandfather and Grandmother. Usually they both would come over to my mother for Sunday Dinner. Earlier that day about 10am Grandmother came over for a bucket of water from our tank, and told Mum that Grandfather didn’t want to come over as he was looking after his little black mare (Sally) as she had a bad foot and that she would not come without him. Mum dished up their meal and an apple pie and sent me over with it just on 12 o’clock and when I got to the slip rails I saw Grandmother come out of the cottage on to the verandah and run towards me in a mass of flames. I dropped the dinner and ran to her and by that time poor Grandfather heard her screams and was pulling the burning clothes off her and he suffered terribly deep burns on his face, hands, and arms. The big old fashioned wooden couch mattress caught on fire on the verandah with a spark or flame as poor Grandmother ran out and I don’t Know how I did it, but I threw it over the railings on to the ground to put it out. She wore a long black dress and must have been standing with her back to the stove and a piece of bramble had fallen out and caught her long dress. We found the bramble smouldering on the floor.”

Julia O’Driscoll goes on to say that her ” grandmother was a lovely little gentle lady, and worked very hard all her life, rearing a big family, baking all their bread, cooking, mending and washing white moleskin trousers for her husband and sons all on the old wooden washboard. “Grandfather was a very hard working man. He had a bullock team and horse team and big four wheeled waggon with sides on it to take produce to the old markets in Roma Street. He also bred race horses and one particular black horse he called Wrangler.”
She remembers that her grandfather built many out buildings and yards and stables for the horses, and had his own blacksmith shop and anvil and bellows. He had tools and farming implements of every description and always shod his horses himself. They milked cows, reared pigs, planted corn, potatoes, wheat and other crops. “He had a lovely black buggy with nickel lights and trimmings and drove tow lovely creamy ponies that used to prance along so proudly with all the harness glittering. Grandfather was so very proud of them.”

Julia O’Driscoll (now Mrs J Madden) writes that her grandparents first lived in a little cottage on the corner of George and Turbot streets where John Hicks’ furniture store used to be. They then moved to St. Lucia where the University now is and she doesn’t remember how long they remained there, but from there they journeyed to Moggill by bullock wagon and built the family home with timber cut from the property, a shingle roof, and with the floor made from ant bed, small creek stones and tar. She remembers that her Grandfather built a dairy about six feet in the ground and made benches all around the sides which were covered in with fine screening with a shingle roof of iron bark and steps to go down into the dairy which had a floor of antbed and tar. The milk was set in big round tin dishes and Grandmother would skim the rich cream off every morning and put it into the old fashioned wooden churn and make the butter, which was sold at 6 pence per pound. The skimmed milk was then given to the calves and pigs.

The other two brothers William and James took up land at Fig Tree Pocket. James had land described as Portions 204 and 157, and William had portion 158 across the road near Lone Pine, and where the Spastic Centre now stands.

Both William and James O’Brien were involved with the Committee of the first Fig Tree Pocket school and the O’Brien children were fortunate to have as a teacher the intelligent, cultured daughter of Mr Joseph Clarkson, who owned the farm where Lone Pine now stands. For many years the school was the hub of the activities of Fig Tree Pocket residents, acting as a refuge, social hall and post office. The postman would ride up to the school, tie up his horse under the old cork tree, deliver the letters to the pupils who would take them home to their parents. In the great flood of 1893 when many of the farms of the district were flooded and the rich alluvial soil was washed away, many families sought shelter in the school. James O’Brien”s on higher ground was also a refuge during the flood.

It has always been said that Fig Tree Pocket got its name from the large fig trees – one in particular – which grew on the O’Brien property.

Not much has come to light on the family of William and Catherine or why they left Fig Tree Pocket. They were still there in 1888 as the photo on the next page shows. They were a very musical family with their own orchestra which played for the dances at Sherwood. The two girls when older went to All Hallows, and the boys went to St Killians’s College in South Brisbane which later burnt down. Whatever happened, William and Catherine did not die in their original home at Fig Tree Pocket as did the other brothers and their wives. It may have been the flood of 1893 that caused them to leave. Catherine died at Makerston St in 1901, and William died at the home of his son Felix in 1907 at the top end of Wickham Terrace.

Mr Herc. Sinnamon of Seventeen Mile Rocks gives a detailed report of the family of James and Sarah O’Brien, their home being directly across the river from his ancestral home. His people arrived at the same time as the O’Briens and naturally the two families had a close association. Unfortunately he would not part with his report as yet. He records the accomplishments of each member of the family and recalls that a beautiful suprano voice wafted across the river as the family went about its work. The last of the family “Uncle Phil” died in approximately 1961. He married but had no children. An article from the local paper is included in the next pages.

Between them, the O’Brien brothers raised 28 children. Undoubtedly there might  have been a few rogues and rascals amongst them, especially when one considers the life the older members of the families led – little schooling , hard work always, no modern inventions such as electricity, wireless, cars or phones – their only contact with others by boat, horse or on foot. One marvels at their strength especially that of the oldest brother Charles who started his venture at the age of 54 years, with 5 small children, and raised seven more after that! They had to contend with aboriginies, drought, flood and depression.

Reports of the original O’Brien families have been of polite, friendly people, straight backed men , some dark and handsome, some remarkable gentlemen, always great horsemen, some rogues and rascals, much rivalry and bickering between some – “the O’Briens have always been a fighting people” and a few with a taste for the bottle, but the blame would be on the bottle and circumstances, not their O’Brien ancestry!

The O’Brien women are reported as gentle and courteous always, more straight backs, and always surrounded by music, poetry, laughter and pride and their homes were always “open house” for friends.

Whilst our pioneer men rate the highest regard and credit for their courage and resourcefulness, would they have endured without the presence of their women? The endurance and fortitude of the women helped them master so much.

However, our pride is in these three O’Brien brothers who brought their families to Australia in 1863, and to whom we owe our existence. Amongst their descendants there is much charisma; there are lots of wonderful, courteous and gifted people, and though the brothers may not be known in any hall of fame, CHARLES, WILLIAM and JAMES were certainly not ordinary!

2. Catherine O’Brien was born on the 22nd of March, 1863, on board the 1863 voyage of the Queen of the Colonies.  Her cousins John and Felix O’Brien were also born on the voyage.


The photo above shows Catherine Howard, nee O’Brien, who was born during the 1863 voyage of the Queen of the Colonies to Queensland, Australia, surrounded by her surviving children.Catherine’s husband Daniel Joseph Howard, born about 1849 in Blackstock, Cork, Ireland, died in 1905 at Toowong, Brisbane.   The couple were married in 1887.   Mary and Lucy were born in Christchurch  while the family were temporarily living in New Zealand.  Other children were born in Brisbane. Other deceased children were:   Charles Patrick Howard, born and died 1897 and Ellen Charlotte Howard, born and died 1901.John Howard married Annie Eva O’Hanlon in 1927. Mary Howard married Edward James Phillips in 1920. Lucy Howard married Thomas Walker in 1916. Francis Joseph Howard married Doris Wyreema Farrell in 1931.

3.  The O’Briens are mentioned in this book:
“A Green and Pleasant Land”- an account of the Pullenvale – Moggill District of South-East Queensland.
Author – Ian Cameron 1999.   ISBN 0 646 38325 6.

4. Charles O’Brien is mentioned on this webpage: